Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, a long-time proven friend of Israel, celebrated his 59th birthday in Jerusalem on Wednesday. Borisov specifically came to Israel to speak to the Global Forum of the American Jewish Committee, where he said: “Our mission today is to prevent the reemergence of xenophobia and antisemitism.”
He reiterated those sentiments on Wednesday at meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin. Netanyahu congratulated him on his birthday, but Rivlin went a step further and arranged a birthday cake for him, which was brought in just as Rivlin was about to discuss the impact of the summit meeting in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Rivlin immediately burst into song singing “Happy Birthday to you…” and Borisov, with a surprised but happy grin on his face, rose to blow out the candle.
Even without the cake, there was a very positive atmosphere in the room. Borisov, in addition to being a three-time prime minister and a former mayor of Sofia, is also a professional soccer player, and Rivlin is an avid soccer fan.
Aside from that, the two got along famously when Rivlin visited Bulgaria in 2016. Rivlin told his guest that he was still impressed by the wonderful hospitality he had received.
Getting back to the meeting in Singapore, Rivlin said that its eventual outcome could affect the whole world. He enthused about the ability of two extreme adversaries to find a way to speak to each other, and forecast that it was the beginning of a new era.
“People talk to each other when there is mutual trust,” he said, regretting that this is not yet the case where Israel and the Palestinians are concerned.
The Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel, and so the conflict continues, he said. “There’s always a problem when one side refuses to recognize the other.”
Rivlin was emphatic in declaring that the Jewish people are not strangers to this land. “Our ancestors lived here centuries go,” he stated, pointing out that even Jews who lived in the harmonious environment of Bulgaria prayed three times a day towards Jerusalem.
When he was born, he said, there were only 200,000 Jews in the whole of the Land of Israel. Since the establishment of the state, Israel has absorbed 4 million Jews from all corners of the world, and the Jewish population today stands in excess of 6.5 million.
“If our neighbors thought we were a passing episode, they have to realize that we are here to stay,” Rivlin insisted.
Aware that Borisov’s itinerary included a meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, Rivlin reiterated: “We have to build confidence among the Palestinians, to live with them and to build a joint economy. And they have to understand that we are here.” Rivlin also warned of Iran’s imperialist ambitions and its gradual take-over of the Middle East. Iran poses a constant threat to Israel, he said, citing as an example the 150,000 rockets sent by Iran to Syria for use against Israel.
Rivlin urged Europe to wake up and realize the danger of a nuclear Iran.
Borisov pointed out that this is a very sensitive issue because several European countries have close economic ties with Iran.
The Bulgarian prime minister came to Israel with a delegation that includes Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev, Deputy Foreign Minister and National Coordinator of the Struggle Against Antisemitism Georg Geriev, Education and Science Minister Krasimir Valcherv and Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust, when Bulgarians lay down on the railway tracks to prevent the deportation of the Bulgarian Jewish community to the death camps. They were unable to save Jews of other nationalities who had sought refuge in Bulgaria, and Borisov said that it saddened him profoundly that they could not save more Jews.
The existing good relations between Bulgaria and Israel can be even better, he said, especially in the field of cyber technology.
Politically, there is also room for a stronger relationship. Rivlin said that he knew that feelers had been put out for an inter-governmental meeting, and he was optimistic that this would soon take place.
“Israel will always be willing to cooperate with Bulgaria, because we appreciate so much what Bulgaria did for its Jews,” he said.